It’s written in the entertainers’ bible: If thine image offends thee, try another medium. For music stars straitjacketed by an unwanted reputation, movies offer a handy escape route. With one suitable (and songless) project, acting can (as with Cher) — but doesn’t always (as with Madonna) — drastically alter mass perceptions.

When director Milos Forman (Amadeus, Ragtime) set about polishing a reprehensible sleazemonger into an endearing free-speech hero in The People vs. Larry Flynt, he also afforded another infamous figure the chance to improve a nasty reputation.

To the public mind, Courtney Love of Hole is alternative rock’s baddest bad girl. Only Roseanne gets more consistently scabrous and malicious press than this inflammatory loudmouth. But risks are her business, and so, in a career move comparable to stage-diving in a short dress, Love cast her cinematic lot with Althea Leasure — the stripper who married Larry Flynt, ran Hustler magazine during his jail time, and finally drowned in a tub, an HIV-infected drug addict.

Though the role is more of a stretch than, say, playing a rowdy rock singer, the similarities between Leasure and Love — a onetime stripper, ex-heroin user, and the widow of Kurt Cobain — are obvious; and Love does slip smoothly into the skin of this assertive, outrageous woman devoted to an equally unconventional mate. She looks great in Althea’s salad days — all big bright eyes, plush mouth, and trim figure — and goes luminously to hell at the end. While Forman pursues his entertaining but blinkered agenda of painting Flynt (Woody Harrelson) as a victimized reprobate, Love fishes an exhilarating personal victory from the narrow straits separating her and the role. She emerges a disciplined, talented pro able to hold her own (despite a wavering regional accent) in the skilled company of Oscar nominees Harrelson and Edward Norton (as Flynt’s long-suffering attorney).

Love got a Golden Globe nomination for Flynt but as yet has made no plans to act again. Next she should expand her dramatic scope and submerge herself in a less likely role. That’s the hallmark of Cher’s distinguished movie career (Mask, Moonstruck, Mermaids, The Witches of Eastwick), which long ago eclipsed her singing. On screen, the outlandishly attired pop goddess is a marvel of modesty, favoring down-to-earth characters who wouldn’t have a clue how to get into a black leather bustier. B+

The People vs. Larry Flynt
  • Movie